On 1 October 1835 the Commissioners, under pressure of G.F. Angas, modified the earlier regulations for the disposal of land in the new colony of South Australia. Under an agreement, that the Company would buy additional land before March 1836, the Board introduced at the Company’s wish a system of Special Surveys. Clause 5 of these regulations read;
That anyone who shall pay in advance to the proper officer, either in England or in the Colony, the price of 4000 acres of land or upwards shall have a right, for every 4000 acres thus paid for, to call on the Colonial Commissioner to survey any compact district within the colony, of an extent not exceeding 15.000 acres, and within a reasonable time after such survey to select his land from any part of such district before any other applicant.
Payments for these surveys could be made in cash or with a Preliminary Land Order. (PLO) For instance, the South Australian Company paid for its first purchase with 30 PLOs. This was in accordance with the special order of the Board of Colonisation Commissioners, dated 22 February 1836.
Later H.D. Murray and J. Reid paid for their Special Survey with 2,422 Pounds, seven PLOs of 134 acres each and eight 80 acre land orders. However settlers with only one or two PLOs were soon concerned that they were going to miss out on their selections. As early as 1837 it was reported that 'several Special Surveys are contemplated' and one had 'already been demanded' but that the 'preliminary holders need not feel alarm on the subject, as no Special Survey can take place till their choice is made'.
Not until 12 May 1838 could the holders of PLOs proceed to select their blocks. The order in which they could do so was established by drawing lots. The lucky first was Colonel W. Light himself. Whatever method of payment was used, Special Surveys gave 'immense advantages to early land holders and those persons with money who arrived early in the colony and searched out the best acres of land'.
Bitter conflicts soon developed over the Special Survey issue, especially in relation to Wakefield’s Principle of Concentration. They were also very expensive and delayed the surveying for the more modest buyers. Those people with Capital to invest defended this issue as they saw it as a mean of attracting badly needed money to the infant colony. Unfortunately most of this capital, welcome as it was, did not come from settlers or intending settlers.
More than sixty per cent of the individuals who managed to get a Special Survey within the first two years were absentee landowners from England. Another undeniable matter of contention was the fact that selectors of these surveys tended 'to pick the eyes' out of the country. One early settler, called them 'a great evil, which resulted in land speculation by an increasing number of absentee landowners, and hindered the surveying and opening up of land for agricultural activities by bona fide applicants'.
Requests for special surveys were employed skilfully to secure blocks of up to 4000 acres, often on both sides of watercourses such as the Light, Angas, Torrens, Parra, Finnes, Wakefield, Gawler and Murray rivers as well as on Currency Creek. Outside the Preliminary Districts, purchasers who paid 4000 Pounds could ask for a Special Survey of 15,000 acres subdivided into 80 acre sections and with the right to select any 4000 acres in a compact block, but in such a manner that the extent of waterfrontage did not exceed two miles.
For those with ready cash, it was the perfect opportunity to pick the choicest land with the best streams and waterfrontages beyond the confines of the Preliminary Districts. Needless to say that a large amount of land sold during 1839 was obtained by this method as it offered capitalists to select their own district, gain a speedy survey, and make a final choice within that very large area.
Governor Gawler welcomed the Special Surveys and encouraged them as much as possible. He saw them as an experiment in expansion, believing that they would throw open large sections of land much faster and thereby encourage the introduction of sheep and cattle. As far as the high cost of this kind of survey was concerned, even Wakefield was forced to make some concessions when he admitted 'that there was no reason why the cost of surveys, road making and bridge-building should not be chargeable to the land fund'.
As a result of these regulations and the availability of large financial resources, the South Australian Company amassed more than 14,000 acres by the end of 1838. Included in this figure were 168 acres in the city of Adelaide.
With an eye for further investment and profit, and to speed up the attraction of further capital and the opening up of South Australia, a Secondary Towns Association was formed in England in 1838. The object of this private enterprise venture was the 'seeking in South Australia of Special Surveys whenever it seemed probable that Secondary Towns might be established with advantage'. The local Colonial Representative for the Secondary Towns Association was John Morphett. When he arrived in South Australia with the first surveyors it was said that he 'came to invest his own and others’ wealth in land', He eventually took out six Special Surveys. No wonder it was said that it was seen as a virtual licence to print money for the shrewd speculator.
Torrens certainly agreed with the objectives of Special Surveys and the importation of capital. His opinion was that they operated as a bounty upon the introduction of capital into the colony as well as overcoming the problem of congestion and the use of inferior land. Unfortunately, at the same time though, good land was being picked out at an alarmingly rate, locking up surrounding land and making it useless for anyone else. A very good example of this was when John Morphett, as Colonial agent for the Secondary Towns Association, selected as the twenty-fifth Special Survey a strip of land 12 miles (18km.) long and one mile wide, along each bank of the Murray.
This caused concern both in South Australia and England and Gawler was informed that it was 'most important that the purchasers of Special Surveys should not be permitted to select their 4000 acres in slips along the banks of rivers and streams but as an area bounded by lines as nearly equidistant from a common centre as the natural features of the country would permit'.
In a few cases Governor Gawler permitted changes of location and the combination of several people to buy a single survey. Occasionally he also agreed to the selection of blocks of as small a size as 500 acres. To make matters worse still he even modified the compact rectangular figure along the Murray where a rich river frontage was backed by poor land. However in this case he took the precaution of reserving for the government the right to resume waterfrontage if required.
Within two months Morphett added another 500 acres to his original 4000 and had thus captured the rights to all the waterfront of the Murray from Monteith to six kilometres down from Wellington. A little later he repeated the same trick when he selected a second elongated Special Survey on the banks of the River Light.
There was another way though, in which some people looked at these surveys. They attracted wealthy members of the English gentry to migrate to South Australia. On their surveys, these gentry continued 'their roles as country squires fostering something of the community life of an English village'. Their examples, in regard to good manners and culture 'was of inestimable value to the locality in which they resided'.
Special Surveys soon formed the basis upon which many large land holdings were successfully established, but as great as the concessions were, some of these gentlemen-land-jobbers asked for still more. Most of the initial owners of these surveys let the majority of their vast lands to labouring settlers. They invariably established a township in the most suitable location of their chosen 4000 acres with the object of making it a thriving self-sufficient community. Most of these towns provided a sure base for instant profit making as town blocks were often sold at many times the original price of one Pound per acre. Without the inducements of these Special Surveys the growth of population in South Australia, and spread of cultivation before 1850, would probably have been much slower.